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They Speak for the Trees

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Paradoxically, our most insidious environmental problems are often ones that do not immediately impact our daily lives. Refineries spew pollution into the air, and somewhere someone dies of cancer. But who actually connects the dots? It’s this elusiveness that makes it easy for the concerned citizen to practice willful blindness when it comes to addressing dire issues with appropriately drastic solutions. Perhaps the most basic challenge environmentalists face is to make the invisible visible.

The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage and Conservation, edited by David Todd and David Weisman, documents the personal stories of 62 Texans who chose to do just that. In excerpting individual testimonies from extensive videotaped interviews recorded over the last 15 years, Todd and Weisman have accomplished something simple and deeply affecting: they’ve allowed common people to describe in their own terms how they sought uncommon solutions to our most urgent environmental concerns.

This book is a labor of love. Todd, who began the work of the Conservation History Association of Texas (which sponsors the Texas Legacy Project) in 1997, conducted not only the vast majority of the interviews excerpted here, but electronically archived over 225 total oral histories online at texaslegacy.org, making them publicly available at no cost. David Weisman, an award-winning documentary film maker, oversaw the camera work and video editing. Their project is ongoing and will continue to be updated on-line, serving as a stern reminder to any skeptic that “Texas conservationist” is not, in fact, an oxymoron.

Todd and Weisman describe the stories they’ve gathered as “the voice of experience, the seed stock of ideas, the intellectual property of skills, and the legacy for a new generation.” Reaching this conclusion required legwork. The photo on the back cover is a chaotic montage of keys, maps, shooting schedules, restaurant menus, and plane tickets. Not unlike the men and women they interview, these guys also had to hit the streets to make the invisible visible. It’s a big state.

As for the specific narratives themselves, they’re as diverse as the environmental problems marring Texas, but several unifying threads tie them into a meaningful whole. As Todd and Weisman explain, they all involve post-World War II issues, they all have something or other to do with the broad theme of “conservation,” and they all tell us “about the history of a particular place, time, and cause.”

Sure. But this is overly modest. The stories are actually quietly powerful testaments to a rare sort of virtue, one borne of that Jeffersonian notion that the “earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” As I read them I found myself continually refreshed by the presence of so many exemplary citizens willing to live according to the maxim that, as the Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek put it, “Nature herself is deliberate.” The implication that we should strive to be equally deliberate could not be more pronounced in these varied stories.

What ultimately drives this message home is the personalization of environmental issues that, in the rush of daily life, can feel remote and ephemeral. Whether it’s Jeanne Gramstorff, a Farnsworth banker and farmer, taking on confined animal feeding operations: “I think it’s hideous to do that to an animal, what they do to hogs.” Or Lanell Anderson, a Channelview real estate agent, fighting petrochemical emissions: “We have hypocrites running our state Legislature.” Or Terry O’Rourke, the Houston attorney and hydrologist who has spent his career on the progressive side of critical environmental issues: “Hey, bubba, we’re going to trial.” Throughout the interviews, there’s one lesson that will prove to be enduring and inescapable: as environmental historian Char Milller puts it, “we have an obligation to act.”

Contributing writer James E. McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and the author of Just Food.